What are the signs of skin cancer?

A fellow caregiver asked...

What are the signs of skin cancer?

Expert Answer

Jessica J. Krant, MD, MPH, is a board-certified dermatologist specializing in medical, cosmetic, and surgical dermatology, including Mohs micrographic skin cancer surgery. In addition to her work in private practice, Krant is assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center.

The signs of skin cancer can be obvious or subtle. There are three main types of skin cancer, depending on which skin cell type has gone bad: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma, in order of increasing danger. Each can have many different appearances, and all three can also look like each other.

  • Basal cell carcinoma, the most common type of skin cancer, is usually a pearly or translucent looking bump, but may also be a flat, white, scarlike patch or a scaly red patch.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma, the middle risk skin cancer (which can be fatal in some cases, as they all can), can look like a red scaly patch or a crusty red growth.

  • The most well known signs of melanoma are of a changing or new mole, which might be growing, itching, bleeding, changing colors (from brown to black, for example), or changing shape, but it is important to know that melanoma can also be pink or red and not brown at all.

Besides how they look, skin cancers may reveal themselves by how they act. They may be painful, sore, itchy, or healing and recurring. If you experience any of these symptoms or are concerned about any spot on your skin, I recommend getting it checked by a dermatologist and also getting an annual skin cancer screening. It is comforting to hear "don't worry about that one, it's harmless".